The House of Representatives passed two sweeping pieces of legislation late Wednesday night:
- The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on Wednesday night, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that would ban no-knock warrants, and overhaul qualified immunity protections.
- The For the People Act, which would establish Election Day as a federal holiday, automatic voter registration, allow for widespread early voting and voting-by-mail, as well as reforming campaign finance.
The final vote on the For the People Act passed in a 220-210, with 1 Democrat breaking with the caucus to vote with Republicans against the measure.
"This is something that is enormously popular among the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said earlier Wednesday. "The American people want to reduce the role of big, dark, special interest money in politics, which is preventing so many good things from happening. The people want to see an end to voter suppression."
President Joe Biden praised the House for passing the measure, one of his key priorities, and pledged to work with Congress "to refine and advance this important bill."
"In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy; a coordinated attempt to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the American people never before seen in our history; and a new wave of aggressive attacks on voting rights taking place in states across the country, I applaud Speaker Pelosi and the House of Representatives for passing H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021," Biden said in a statement Thursday.
"The right to vote is sacred and fundamental — it is the right from which all of our other rights as Americans spring," Biden added. "This landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect that right, to safeguard the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy."
"It will rein in the outrageous gerrymandering that distorts our democracy," the president went on to say. "It will empower the Justice Department to crack down on laws that curtail voting rights along racial lines. It will reform our campaign finance system to amplify the voices of the people — not the powerful. And it will modernize and secure our future elections against all manner of threats."
The final vote on the the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was 220-212, with one Republican, Texas Rep. Lance Gooden, joining Democrats in supporting the measure. However, following the vote, Rep. Gooden wrote on Twitter that he "accidentally pressed the wrong voting button and realized it too late," and will be submitting to change his vote.
Two Democrats, Jared Golden (D-ME) and Ron Kind (D-WI), joined nearly every Republican in the House GOP caucus in opposing the bill.
"Police brutality, particularly against Black Americans, has persisted far too long," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote on Twitter. "This bill will ban chokeholds, end qualified immunity and fund community-led safety initiatives. Police must be held accountable."
House Speaker Pelosi noted that while this bill would go far in terms of reforming police, it could not make up for decades of systemic racism or bring back lives lost due to police brutality.
"It will not erase centuries of systemic racism and excessive policing," Pelosi said. "And it will not bring back George Floyd, Breonna Taylor – say her name – Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or the countless others who have been killed or harmed."
Both bills are have the ringing endorsement of the Biden administration, but face an uphill battle in a 50-50 Senate, as calls continue to eliminate the Senate filibuster to pass these progressive priorities.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was set for a vote Thursday, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced that the bill would receive a vote Wednesday night, along with the For the People Act.
Earlier Wednesday, Capitol Police announced it is beefing up security around the U.S. Capitol light of a "possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group on Thursday, March 4,” a date that coincides with a far-right conspiracy theory which claims that former President Donald Trump will be put back into office that day.
The bill aimed at reforming policing nationwide named after George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was white, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Civil unrest after Floyd’s death spiraled into violence locally. Protests spread around the world and forced a painful reckoning on race in the U.S.
"To make our communities safer, we must begin by rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the people they are entrusted to serve and protect. We cannot rebuild that trust if we do not hold police officers accountable for abuses of power and tackle systemic misconduct – and systemic racism – in police departments," the Biden Administration said in a statement in support of the bill. "The Administration encourages the House to pass this legislation, and looks forward to working with the Congress to enact a landmark policing reform law.”
A similar bill passed in the House last year, but the Republican-led Senate never held a vote on the bill. The measure now heads to the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle for passage.
H.R. 1, the For the People Act “will put a stop at the voter suppression that we’re seeing debated right now,” said Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams, who represents the district once held by longtime voting rights champion John Lewis. “This bill is the ‘Good Trouble’ he fought for his entire life.”
This measure also has the support of the Biden administration, which said in a statement: "In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy."
"Consistent with the Administration’s commitment to racial equity, the bill would also expand the tools available to the Justice Department to enforce the voting rights of all Americans," the statement continued .
The stakes are monumental, cutting to the foundational idea that one person equals one vote and could shape election outcomes for years to come. The push comes after decades of court decisions and Republican-championed state laws that have imposed limits that have fallen hardest on key constituencies of the Democratic Party.
The measure, which was all but certain to pass the House in a vote expected Wednesday, has been a priority for Democrats since they won their majority in 2018. But it has taken on added urgency in the wake of Donald Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen 2020 election.
Courts and even Trump’s last attorney general, William Barr, found his claims about the election to be without merit. But, spurred on by those lies, state lawmakers across the U.S. have filed more than 200 bills in 43 states that would limit ballot access, according to a tally kept by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the efforts by Republicans nationwide to change voting laws "despicable."
"It is difficult not to see the tentacles of America’s generations-old caste system – typically associated with slavery and Jim Crow – stretching into the 21st century," he said.
"It’s incredible what they’re doing," Schumer added. "We must do everything we can to stop them."
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), who sponsored the bill, said that outside of Congress “these aren't controversial reforms.” Much of it, he noted, was derived from recommendations of a bipartisan commission.
In Iowa, the legislature has voted to cut absentee and in-person early voting and prevent local elections officials from setting up additional locations to make early voting easier. In Georgia, the House on Monday voted for a law to require identification to vote by mail and allow counties to cancel early in-person voting on Sundays, when many Black voters cast ballots after church.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court appeared ready to uphold voting restrictions in Arizona, which could make it harder to challenge state election laws in the future.
When asked why proponents sought to uphold the Arizona laws, which limit who can turn in absentee ballots and enable ballots to be thrown out if they are cast in the wrong precinct, a lawyer for the state’s Republican Party was stunningly clear.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” said attorney Michael Carvin. “Politics is a zero-sum game.”
Battle lines are quickly being drawn by outside groups who plan to spend millions of dollars on advertising and outreach campaigns.
Republicans “are not even being coy about it. They are saying the ‘quiet parts’ out loud,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a left-leaning group that aims to curtail the influence of corporate money in politics. Her group has launched a $10 million effort supporting the bill. “For them, this isn’t about protecting our democracy or protecting our elections. This is about pure partisan political gain.”
That’s the same charge Republicans level at Democrats.
“Democrats want to use their razor-thin majority not to pass bills to earn voters’ trust, but to ensure they don’t lose more seats in the next election,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said from the House floor on Tuesday.
A coalition led by Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official in the Department of Homeland Security, will spend $5 million pressuring moderate Democratic senators to oppose the bill.
“The imperative is stopping H.R. 1 because it’s that bad,” said Cuccinelli. “H.R. 1 is not about making elections better. In fact, it’s about the opposite. It’s intended to dirty up elections.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, in an op-ed, called H.R. 1 an "unconstitutional, reckless, and anti-democratic bill."
So what’s actually in the bill?
H.R. 1 would require states to automatically register eligible voters and offer same-day registration. It would limit states’ ability to purge registered voters from their rolls and mandate the restoration of former felons’ voting rights in states where they aren’t allowed to vote. Among dozens of other provisions, it would also require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow no-excuse absentee balloting.
On the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, typically a fiercely partisan affair, the bill would mandate that nonpartisan commissions handle the process instead of state legislatures.
Many Republican opponents in Congress have homed in on narrower aspects of the measure though, railing against the creation of a public financing system for congressional campaigns.
Davis charged that it would “launder corporate dollars” to publicly fund congressional campaigns. What the bill would actually do is use fines and settlement proceeds raised from corporate bad actors to create a pool of money open to candidates who meet certain requirements.
Republicans similarly attacked an effort to revamp the federal government’s toothless elections cop. That agency, the Federal Election Commission, has been gripped by partisan deadlock for years, allowing campaign finance law violators to go mostly unchecked.
They’ve also excoriated a section that would force the disclosure of donors to “dark money” political groups.
It “would put people’s private information on display and put their personal security at risk,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. “People could lose their jobs, be shamed or even worse.”
Most campaigns and political groups are already required to disclose donor information. But over the past decade “dark money” nonprofits, which are not required to reveal such information under IRS law, have risen to prominence, often because they are attractive to wealthy interests that wish to remain anonymous.
Still, the biggest obstacles lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster – a tally they are unlikely to reach.
Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow some legislation to be exempt. Democratic congressional aides say the conversations are fluid but underway.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.